That last essay, about Peter Falk, was the hardest, saddest blog post I’ve ever had to write, and I blogged about Auschwitz. Why is that?
Columbo has been my favorite show as long as I can remember, and its namesake my favorite television character. I was a kid when I started watching Columbo. At some point, being Columbo was essentially my life goal: the blatant disregard for one’s physical appearance, the disrespect for fashion, wealth, and elitism, the somewhat amusing ideas about classical music, the gloriously dry wit, the keen observant eye (well, I have two eyes), and of course the way his genius has of taking you by surprise.
So that’s what I aspired to be. I wanted to be smart and I wanted nobody to expect it. I wanted to hide what intelligence I had and spring it on people. I wanted to have a slightly weird stooped walk and a casual attitude. I wanted to walk into a room and notice everything. Luckily nobody ever gave me a trench-coat or cigars.
I actually am pretty observant, because of Columbo. I notice all sorts of little details, and though I usually tell people, “Oh, that’s because I read murder mysteries,” it’s really thanks to Columbo. It may turn out to be the case that Columbo’s powers of observation made me a better writer. And someone actually once told me she was afraid to speak without thinking when I was around because I always remember. I haven’t forgotten that.
Peter Falk has some kind of spark, for me. Is it what people call a “twinkle in the eye”? Anytime he appears on screen, the show, or film, gets better; the screen actually lights up; he cheers me up just by being there. I see Peter Falk and I smile without helping it, or thinking about it. This is true in The Princess Bride, and Murder by Death, and The Great Race, and, well, everything he’s been in. Not many actors are like that. Maggie Smith. Madeline Kahn. Maybe John Cusack. Maybe Michael Caine.
I’ve probably been watching Columbo for nearly a decade, nearly, that is to say, half my life (don’t look too closely at the math). Its combination of humor, cold logic, and ingenious writing is unmatched; its detective is the best to ever appear on a TV screen. But we talked about in the last blog post. This one’s saying, its combination of humor and logic were and are exactly what I want out of a good story. I loved that guy; I loved that show. The 13-year-old Brian wanted to be Lt. Columbo. He probably wanted a better car, and he didn’t like dogs that much, but otherwise it’s true.
Last year at Rice I taught a class called Reading and Writing Detective Fiction. We watched three detective stories on screen: Vertigo, House‘s “Three Stories,” and Columbo‘s “Candidate for Crime.” I added Columbo because the inverted detective story is fascinating, but also because I could sit in the back and slide into bliss.
That’s why that last essay was so hard to write. The detective fiction scholar enjoyed it but had a hard time. But the kid in me just had his hero die.
Of course, that’s overstated. My childhood hero hasn’t died; there are a dozen seasons of his exploits still around, and there are even some episodes I haven’t seen. Lieutenant Columbo will live on–he’ll just be off duty.